Ping Pong

Ping Pong

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Olympic year of 2012 is seeing a lot of sports-related documentaries make it to the big screen, but you won't see another like this one. Ping Pong follows a group of contestants all aged over 80 as they compete to win the senior level world table tennis championships. It might not seem like the most exciting piece of cinema but you'll be surprised by how quickly you find yourself rooting for its vivacious heroes.

Terry, from England, is 82 and fighting against a plethora of health problems but remains determined never to quit. Ursula, 90, from Germany, is defending her title and says she'd rather die at the table than in a care home. Sun Lao, 84, from Mongolia, is taking part for the first time and loves the social side of it, feeling that it keeps him alive. Lisa, 86, from the US, has no shortage of energy, even after 40 years of marriage to a man 25 years her junior, but her driving force is the urge to be the best at everything she does.

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These are just four of the eight contestants we follow to the championships. Each has a unique story to tell. We see them at home or in the care homes where they are supported. We hear about their often complicated personal lives (Dorothy, an Australian centenarian, was warned by a doctor to avoid unprotected sex when travelling to the previous year's championship tournament in Rio de Janeiro). Some discuss their youth (90 year old Les recovered from a sickly childhood to become a bodybuilder; Lisa worked for the French Resistance primarily by 'distracting' Nazi soldiers), but there's never any suggestion that the best things in their lives are behind them. These are people living very much in the moment. They have more passion and lust for life than most people a quarter of their age, and the tension in the table tennis matches themselves is enhanced by an awareness that, for each of them, there's a real chance this tournament could be the last.

As for the games themselves, they're a lot more exciting than you might imagine. Though some players really have reached the point where they're struggling - Dorothy still has skillful hands but can hardly move her feet - others could easily thrash opponents in the prime of life. Unfortunately the footage of the matches isn't very good and we don't always get to focus on the action in a satisfying way. Director Hartford is wonderful at drawing out personal stories and exploring people's private worlds but the tough business of filming sports is a bit beyond him. As a resul, this will appeal to fans of the sport primarily because of what it says about the players, not because of any more direct thrills and spills.

To the average viewer, table tennis probably doesn't seem very thrilling anyway, but Hatford does a good job of showing us the players' passion for the sport in a way that becomes infectious. Ping Pong has buckets of charm and quite a bit of insight. It's not the best sports documentary ever made but it has to be one of the most enjoyable.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2012
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Ping Pong packshot
A documentary following eight players on their way to the over-80s world table tennis championships.
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Director: Hugh Hartford

Starring: Les D'Arcy, Rune Forsberg, Sun Lao, Terry Donlon, Dorothy DeLow, Lisa Modlich, Ursula Bihl, Inge Hermann

Year: 2012

Runtime: 76 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Canada


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